Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Breaking the bullying cycle

While I was exploring the topic of psychologists and cyberbullying in my most recent post, I came across another thoughtful take on the less-than-optimal legislative responses to bullying in an earlier issue of The Walrus by Rachel Giese. There's an audio file here.

Giese asks whether anti-bullying measures that are being enacted internationally as a response to public horror over the tragic results of tormenting behaviour, might be harming our children.

She quotes from parenting expert Barbara Coloroso's book, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander: "Kids who bully have an air of superiority that is often a mask to cover up deep hurt and a feeling of inadequacy" and suggests that they themselves might be victims of the school system and their parents. There are some notes on the book here.

Giese writes that "Bullying entails an interplay between the kids who are picked on, the ones who bully, and those who watch it happen". The point she makes is that "kids have to be taught to be kind and unselfish, just as they must be instructed in reading and long division" and that culpability extends to the entire community.

Anti-bullying legislation, unfortunately, does not reflect this reality.

As the mother of an eight-year-old son who has had an official suspension, warnings and detentions for fighting, shoving, swearing and kicking at school, Giese is very much aware of the reality that all kids can be thuggish or mean at times.

She points to a report by the World Health Organisation and the Canadian Council on Learning that indicated that more than 25 per cent of boys and 18 per cent of girls in grades six through 10 admitted to bullying others. That report, available as a PDF download, makes other compelling points about bullying, and highlights the widespread failure of well-meaning but simplistic interventions.

Giese issues a timely reminder to those calling for and enacting knee-jerk legislation that today's kids "didn't invent ganging up on each other, any more than they did sex, drugs, or sullenness".

Barbara Coloroso's Kids are Worth It website has more food for thought in an outline of one of her lectures on breaking the cycle of violence in our homes, schools and communities. She emphasises that this "requires that we examine the why and the how a child becomes a bully or the target of a bully (and sometimes both) as well as the role the bystanders play in perpetuating the cycle".

Another WHO report reveals that students involved in bullying, whether as bystanders, bullies or victims, are at significant risk of experiencing a wide spectrum of psychosomatic symptoms, and that these consequences of bullying extend into adulthood.

And at the University of Warwick in Coventry, research psychologist Professor Dieter Wolke recently completed a study on the impact of childhood bullying in adulthood. There's a fascinating Q&A with Professor Wolke at the Association for Psychological Science blog.

Wolke was also involved in another study that indicated that children with over-protective parents are more likely to be bullied by their peers, although not to the same extent as children with abusive or neglected parents.

While Australian initiatives like the National Centre Against Bullying is highly worthy, I'm not so sure that the advice it offers under the heading "Things you can do if your child is bullying others" goes quite far enough.

The Swedish-developed Method of Shared Concern that has been trialled on a limited basis in Australia has had significant success in some cases - and unfortunately little in others. It seems to be highly resource intensive. One thing that occurred to me as I read it was the emphasis it placed on "the practitioner" and school staff. I imagine Giese and Coloroso would wonder if there is quite enough focus on the home environment.

Wolke's research suggested that some parenting styles may protect children against the risk of bullying. These include:

  • being authoritative
  • being involved and supportive
  • being warm and affectionate
  • having good communication with your child
  • providing appropriate supervision

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